Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Deconstructing Osama by Joan Fontcuberta

It is only fitting that a post dated on April 1 should be about photography's master of hoaxes Joan Fontcuberta and his new book Deconstructing Osama: The Truth About the Case of Manbaa Mokfhi. Fontcuberta's past fabrications have included intensely detailed histories of an ill-fated Russian space mission, the Soyuz-2 and another about a German biologist named Dr. Ameisenhaufen who documented the strange beasts he discovered while traveling in remote areas of the world. In Deconstructing Osama, Fontcuberta takes on more recent history and introduces the air of a conspiracy theory surrounding 9/11.

According to Fontcuberta, in November 2006 two photojournalists with the Qatar-based news agency Al-Zur, Mohammed ben Kalish Ezab and Omar ben Salaad, were following the trail of the leader of Al Qaeda's military wing Dr. Fasqiyta Ul-Junat when they uncovered the truth about this shadowy figure. It was revealed that this dangerous man was in reality an actor and singer named Manbaa Mokfhi who had appeared in soap operas on Arab television networks and was the public face of a MeccaCola advertising campaign that ran in Algeria and Morocco. Shortly after the discovery of his real identity, Mokfhi admitted he'd been hired to play the role of the terrorist. His current fate remains unknown as shortly after his admission he has disappeared after being subjected to an act of "extraordinary rendition." The conspiracy theory deepens as Fontcuberta explains that the attacks on September 11 may have been orchestrated in order to create a pretext for increases in spending for the weapons industry and in particular to push forward with a "missile shield." Intelligence services then invented the figure of Osama bin Laden and his associates in which to create the face of terror.

In the face of Dr. Fasqiyta Ul-Junat we may see Fontcuberta's -- they look suspiciously alike. Throughout Deconstructing Osama we follow Ul-Junat/Fontcuberta as he shows up in photographs fighting in Afghanistan and in the company of bin Laden. The photographs, obviously doctored and very tongue-in-cheek, propel us through Fontcuberta's audacious claims and bring to mind his usual concern with truthfulness in photography.

His hoaxes are so complex, part of the fun is in deconstructing Fontcuberta. For instance his choice of naming the two photojournalists after characters that appeared in Tintin comics or the fact that the last known stop of Ul'Junat's plane during his extraordinary rendition was in Palma de Mallorca, Spain which happened to have exhibited Deconstructing Osama at the Fundacio Pilar i Joan Miro. And, who is that familiar looking westerner who is obviously Al Qaeda’s rare photobook specialist?

Deconstructing Osama is an extremely provocative book that works in very sophisticated ways. In keeping with his other books, Fontcuberta tells his story through photographic documentation and text but what I find fascinating here is that all of the text, with the exception of eight pages of English at the end, is in Arabic. The main body of text is not translated. Fontcuberta's strategy of keeping us as much out of the loop as in it strikes the perfect chord of our current state of affairs. It is as if once again, Western eyes are left to see the surface of terrorism and radical Islamic fundamentalism without being able to probe deeper. Since those of us who are unfamiliar with Arabic can't read along, the photographs serve as prompts for us to try and connect the dots and piece together the story which inevitably leads to visual stereotyping. While looking at the photographs I could almost make out how the photographs could be catalogued -- here is Ul-Junat at a rally in support of bin Laden; here is Ul-Junat in the caves of Tora Bora; here is the last known photograph of Ul-Junat before his extraordinary rendition; here is Ul-Junat being remembered as a martyr by young children.

Deconstructing Osama published by Actar is perfectly packaged to resemble a book that might be crafted in Afghanistan. From its thick folded leather cover and string binding to the thin interior pages with their over-the-top decorative borders this book tries to hold on tightly to its credibility in every way possible.

In many ways the tongue-in-cheek nature of this book does little to cover the anger that possibly inspired it. Many of us would like to find an outlet for venting against the injustices that we see transpiring daily. Fontcuberta has found a voice who's tone will anger some but for most it will serve as an entertaining and yet meaningful distraction.


Book Available Here (Deconstructing Osama)